Ep 22 Meet Rakhal Ebeli, internationally acclaimed journalist and founder of Newsmodo

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In Episode 22 of So you want to be a writer, what not to say when you're a writer, stop using character names as a crutch, the future of libraries, the book Port Out, Starboard Home by Michael Quinion, why we write, Writer in Residence and founder of Newsmodo Rakhal Ebeli, unique story prompts, how many pitches you should send to a writer at once and more.

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Show Notes

What Not to Say When You’re a Writer (and What to Say Instead)

“That's my name. Don't wear it out.”

Future libraries

Port Out, Starboard Home by Michael Quinion

Why I write

Maxabella loves

Writer in Residence

rakhal_ebeliRakhal Ebeli is an internationally acclaimed journalist and presenter who founded Newsmodo after more than a decade of working with one of Australia's highest rating broadcasters. He is committed to building new opportunities for freelancers in the media industry, having seen a rapid shift in the news landscape first hand. A passionate leader, Rakhal engages communities and organisations, sharing his vision to develop an online marketplace for newsworthy content at Newsmodo.com.


Newsmodo website
Newsmodo on Twitter

Web Pick

Story Spark

Working Writer's Tip

How many pitches should you send to an editor at once?

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

Connect with us on twitter




Thanks for joining us today Rakhal.

Thanks, it’s my pleasure.

There’s been a lot of talk in the industry and among writers about Newsmodo. For some of the people who aren’t yet familiar with Newsmodo can you describe what it’s about?

Sure. Newsmodo was founded back in 2012. I came about the idea after seeing the dismantling of the media industry and a lot of freelancers having to find new ways of looking for work, particularly journalists who might have originally worked in a more structured environment in a full time role.

We’ve built a network for freelancers to access job opportunities, what we would call briefs. Those briefs could be set by publishers, newspaper editors or magazine editors, television networks. We’re also increasingly finding that brands are engaging in the platform to utilise the resources that we have. Now we’ve got about 14,000 registered journalists worldwide.

Why did you decide to create it? What was your background that gave you that insight into the changes in the industry?
I worked at Channel 10, Network 10 News for about a decade here in Melbourne. Over that period I saw the development of the news industry and certainly the silos starting to break down between digital print, online, television, radio — all of that was starting to merge around that period of time I was working as a journalist. It was a really fascinating time to be in the industry.

Towards the end of my tenure at Network 10 it was becoming fairly obvious that there was a dramatic change going in the media landscape. I think in 2011 over 100 journalists were made redundant and that was within the Network 10 structure alone.

That was really the catalyst for what was originally my iPhone application, which has since been redeveloped into a global network for those freelancers who were suddenly looking for opportunity. Perhaps they were a television journalist and then all of a sudden needed to diversify in their skill sets to find work opportunities as a freelancer in different silos, media environments. So we created that space for the online to be able to profile and exemplify some of the work they had done previously. In essence a bit like a LinkedIn user profile where an editor would be able to engage them for particular work where they felt it was a suitable fit for their skill sets.

You’re kind of putting together people who are looking for specific news stories or content or online video or whatever with the qualified people who can provide it? Is that correct?

That’s absolutely correct. It goes in a two-way communication in essence. We allow our journalists to actually pitch their ideas as well. We have an internal editorial team now that work with journalists in helping them create their proposals for the media, and then we actually help them deliver those proposals, those pitches to our broad list of clients, both here in Australia and overseas.

For an example, a journalist might have a great story idea in their local community, but perhaps they don’t have the means to actually propose that to a wider media environment. We help them, we give them that platform to pitch that to our list of clients, which is over 300 publishers around the country and really amplified their opportunities through our network. As you mentioned the reverse of that is when some of our clients are looking for a particular story, perhaps it’s a regional story and they’re not able to send a journalist there, or maybe an international story, we can deliver that brief to the appropriate journalist by cementing our network into fields of interest by their geographic location and then deliver that brief to the appropriate journalist as an email for them to respond to and let us know of their availability.

Do you operate as a true sort of middle man in a sense where you are putting together these two parties, or are you operating as a marketplace where you match them like RSVP and then they deal with each other? Or do they always have to go through you?

We actually help facilitate the exchange. A number of our relationships have developed to a point where the journalists are almost working in-house with the client and we come to an arrangement, for want of a better word, almost a recruiter in that circumstance. Those arrangements do take some time and contracts would be put in place if there’s a particular project.

For example, one of our journalists is working on a coffee table book for a client and that’s an expensive project, it’s 150+ pages. Obviously they have a need to work and have day-to-day engagements and sometimes face-to-face engagement with the client. It really does depend on the nature of the project that the journalist or writer is being engaged on, but oftentimes it’s not necessary for that engagement to be there.

Our members, and it is a free service to sign up to, but for those who have signed up and created a profile they often feel the advantage is that they don’t need to have that engagement, they don’t need to have to send an invoice after the work is done, all of that is taken care of by our network.

You mention the coffee table book, let’s talk a little bit more about the kinds of projects, because the coffee table does sound very different, because you’re called Newsmodo, did you initially specialise in news but now have expanded to other types of topic areas? Can you give people an idea of the range of types of content they might be able to propose or write about?
As I mentioned, it’s a fascinating time in the news industry, I think every week a journalist finds, if they’re a freelancer, that they’re looking to diversify and then evolve and develop and diversify again.

When we originally came up with the concept of Newsmodo it was literally to connect news reports and what would call journalists working on a typical news round with editorial clients like newspapers and online services, News.com.au or Fairfax, for example. What we’ve found as the evolution of the media continues is that those journalists are now working for brands, they’re working for publishers across multiple platforms, even for agencies that are creating content for their clients or brands. We’re actually connecting those journalists with all of those streams of work opportunities now.

To answer your question the type of work is extremely varied. We’ve done work for companies like Lenovo, for example, which was a global brief. They were looking for profiles on business people who use technology and entrepreneurs who use technology from each region around the world and they wanted five profiles from each region. We distributed that as a global brief and had hundreds of fantastic pitches, proposals from journalists around the world. We were able to then collate all of those ideas, present them to the client and then they went ahead and commissioned 20 or 30 profiles. That’s a really interesting example of where the same template of offering journalists availability through a “news” service can also be offered to brands at other agencies.

I have to say there’s some skepticism around journalists working for brands and branded content and advertorial content, from my experience, and, look, it’s a new world to me and I confess to me as well, but certainly branded content and some of the clients that we’re working with the integrity of the articles is second to none. There’s some fantastic in-depth investigation going on in some of these online news portals that are operated by bigger brands and certainly fantastic entertainment as well.

Lenovo was a great example, can you give us an example of some other brands that are doing good things in terms of publishing?

I would urge you to take a look at GE reports. That’s a fantastic website and it’s a global news portal for the industry and you’ll see on that particular platform whilst there’s GE content obviously peppered through that particular news portal there’s a lot of thought leadership going on, there’s a lot of industry news about not necessarily GE products, but revolutions in the industry and breakthroughs in technology pertaining to things like aviation and electronic vehicles and really interesting gadgety stuff as well. Now that’s an independent portal that is not run by a publisher, per se, but I can tell you the quality of the journalism that goes into it is very high.

Let’s say I’m a journalist and I’m interesting in pitching to Newsmodo, being part of the network, do you have any kind of criteria or do vet the journos in any way? Are you looking for a specific set of skills?

We would welcome any budding journalist to engage with our network, as I said it’s a free service, there’s very little to no risk involved. You can create a profile, as I said you can include links to your previous work and other things that you have done. Certainly checkbox the areas of interest so that when we do get a brief we can distribute that brief to you accurately and if you’re only interested in sport or fashion we’re not sending you something on biotechnology, for an example.

Yeah, absolutely, if a journalist comes onboard and creates a profile what typically happens is the vetting will take place when we get engagement from a client. We don’t pre-vet, necessarily, all of our sign ups, as I said we’ve got 14,000-15,000 or something globally now, so it wouldn’t be prudent of us to do that. But, let’s say five journalists pitch for a particular brief, we would present those to the client and in essence the vetting would happen in that process anyway.

Right. Let’s say I responded to a particular project and I was successful in getting it and I did the job as a journalist and I submitted my piece, you mentioned that you have an internal editorial team who would obviously look that over before sending it onto the client, would I get feedback as a journalist from that editorial team saying, “Actually, can you change this, this and this?” Then if I did that and it was subsequently sent to the client could the client then come back and say, “Change you change this, this and this?”
Yeah, absolutely. In both cases, yes and yes. We do try and have that editorial team there as a stop gap, so there is a QA  process before we deliver content to the client. From the client’s perspective that’s a real value, particularly if they’re busy working on a million other things not to have to have that first look at the copy in particular is a real bonus for them.

Yes, to answer your question, our editorial team will take a look at things and stick it back to the writer if they feel that it perhaps doesn’t quite answer all of the points in a brief. It’s on us to make sure that everything we deliver to a client is on brief. We certainly want to make sure that the first time around that it’s as close to the perfect copy as we can make it.

To answer the second part to your question, there are frequent occasions when an editor will come back to us and say, “Look, this was great, but I was hoping they could add this point or the other, can you ask the journalist or the writer to please address this?” And we’ll go through that process. We don’t typically like that to be a protractive process, of course, but we do buffer in some time for those editorial amends, if they’re required.

That’s an example of when I’ve responded to one of the projects that you’ve put out there. You’ve mentioned that a journalist can also pitch ideas and to hopefully find an outlet for them. Let’s say I’ve done that, of the number of pitches that you receive from journalists and good ideas that they hope to see the light of day, what proportion of them are successful do you think? What proportion of them get picked up? And what kind of articles are they?

The ones that are typically picked up have some element of exclusivity. We’re finding that the response from editorial departments, particularly across the news side of things, is they absolutely can’t do it themselves then great, they’ll love to look at something that we’re proposing. But, if we’re proposing a thought piece on climate change it’s very hard to propose that when their argument would be, “Well, we can probably do that in-house, you’re not adding something that don’t already have access to.”

For example, if you’ve got a great photo an exclusive that you might have captured whilst covering a story, then you’ve got something of value that they don’t, so it makes the pitching process obviously a lot easier.

We always encourage our journalists to come up with those kinds of stories that will put them in a position of authority and a lot of the stuff that we’re really getting interest in has to do with in-depth analysis, material that perhaps the editorial team haven’t had access to or haven’t had the means to actually analyze properly and really deliver in the way that perhaps a journalist who might be working as a freelancer could flesh out.

Would you say that you would have less interest in sort of topics like travel and lifestyle and health and that sort of thing?
I have to say that we’ve got bucket loads of travel content that has yet to be placed. That comes from 14,000 or 15,000 journalists from around the world and every single one of them seems to be a travel journalist on their next holiday or tracking through the Himalayas. We do get a lot of that type of material and I know that our clients get a lot of that type of material too. Whatever your opinion is of it or not, oftentimes in a lot of these publications these days that travel content can be sponsored content as well, so when you’re going in against potentially sponsored content where an editor or a publisher is actually receiving money to publish that content on a new resource or a new tour, for example, then it’s pretty hard for us to go up against that.

Having said that we last month just literally placed a batch of travel content with one of Australia’s leading national publishers and that was fantastic. They are looking, the door is open for that type of material. We’re also looking at new ways that we can expose the amount of content that we have to our clients, and that would come along through potentially opening up our marketplace to clients to browse and commission.

There’s a few different things that we’re trialing at present. We are in the process of redeveloping our size and our structure and some of our key messaging to keep up with those changes.

Do journalists get a byline or in what instances do they get a byline or do they not?

Nearly all of our clients offer the opportunity for a byline. We’ve had some clients try and trade on that offering and we’ve knocked that right on the head. We don’t deal in exploitation at Newsmodo, so we don’t offer our journalists up for the opportunity to just write for a byline, I don’t think that’s doing the industry or anyone any good.

Typically most of our clients actually like to have a journalist byline because most of the writers that we engage have a bit of an acumen, almost a following in the media for whatever their area of expertise is, so that adds value to the publisher who actually commissions that journalist, particularly for brands. We’ve got some big brands in the finance sector who are regularly engaging some of our writers, those journalists might work for BRW or, I don’t know, a  review one week and then work for the brand the next, so having that exposure is actually positive for them as well.

You’ve now touched on the million dollar question on everyone’s lips, which would be what kind of rate of pay can people expect, or range of rate of pay? What kind of indication can you give people on that front?

Obviously like I said we don’t want people writing for the opportunity to get their name put in a magazine, I don’t think that is doing anyone any favors. It really varies depending on where you’re pitching it to.

Let’s look at an example. A piece of video recently sold for tens of thousands of dollars because of the exclusive nature of that video for our platform. An exclusive for let’s say a popular women’s magazine that has very few words but it’s the nature of the story, let’s say Jodhi Meares has crashed a car drunk driving allegedly through the week. You get an exclusive with Jodhi Meares I can tell you it’s not going to be on the number of words that you’re selling, it’s going to be on the fact that you’ve got that exclusive.

It is very hard and that’s where our brokerage comes into it, because it’s very hard to pinpoint an actual figure. If I could pull out a rate card and say these are our rates across the board I would happily do that because it would save us a lot of time and our clients. Often it comes down to what the publication is and what the nature of the story is.

Generally speaking, this probably isn’t news to many freelancers, rates range from anything from as low as — I mean I’ve heard some really low rates, ten cents a word and south of that even, up through to over $1 a word, depending on how the content is created and where it ends up.

Some of the brands that we’re working with, if you’re writing material that will go on the front page of their website they’re obviously going to value the words more than if it’s going to end up on a bit of collateral that was used in an EDM for a day. It really does depend on where that material lands.

Our journalists are really happy with the rates, it’s in our best interest to get the highest possible rate that we can. From their perspective they’re also getting exposure to opportunities where they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They love being able to receive the briefs and they know the rates that are being offered for each opportunity before they enter into a contract or engagement.

Valerie Would there be some journalists who are freelance and who are in your network, but who would work through you almost full time, or be engaged as a high proportion of their work or their income?

There are a few projects like the one I mentioned earlier with the coffee table book that really do absorb a lot of time, and we’ve actually worked out arrangements recently for one journalist on a six month contract. So, to answer your question, yes, but, again, the circumstances of every opportunity vary. We do have writers who are working on up to five articles a week for some clients, that obviously keeps them fairly busy. But, we encourage all writers and journalists to get out there, not just through our platform, but through other means and going to conferences, however they feel is the best way to expose themselves to opportunity, to really follow those opportunities through.

Presumably, of course, since you’re facilitating the relationship and the arrangement you gain revenue because you put some kind of fee on top of what you pay the journalists, is that correct?

Yeah, that’s right.

Just tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey in terms of when you started. You got this idea, you left Channel 10, you thought, “The industry is changing, I’m going to start Newsmodo…” how did it start? Did you fund it yourself? Did you get some investment? How did it actually become reality?

So I was tinkering away on an iPhone app that was originally called Newsme and that was something that I came up with after going out to plenty news stories as a television reporter and paying some person on the street a few hundred bucks or $1,500 for a video that they might have shot on their iPhone. I kept on going to all these — I was at a siege one day and I had been there from about 7:00 AM to about 8:00 PM and it was cold, it was miserable, all of that sort of stuff. One guy shot 11 seconds worth of footage ended up making $1,500– a lot of money, whatever the figure was on that particular day for selling a little bit of iPhone footage. So, I created an iPhone app that allowed anybody to shoot or capture something that they felt was newsworthy and upload that to a website that could be browsed as a marketplace for newsworthy content.

The real breakthrough happened for me when I came in touch with a man by the name of Larry Kestelman, who is the founder of Dodo, which he has recently sold to the M2 group for over $200 million. Larry has been an incredible visionary over his career and certainly saw the merit in what I had proposed to him through showing him that iPhone app at the time, which was back in 2012. He set up, in essence, a VC, which is called Oxygen Ventures, who have now been the backing group behind Newsmodo. Realistically without that support we would have never have been able to develop a site, build a network of journalists, have a full time team of staff to really carry the vision through.

And that VC, Oxygen Ventures, I hosted last week an event that they put on called the Big Pitch where start ups here in Melbourne and their applicants, I believe about 300 from all around the country, applied to pitch for up to $5 million in funding. They’re very committed to supporting grassroots start ups here in Australia. I’ve been very fortunate that I was the first cut off the rank for them.

Finally, project yourself into three years’ time, describe what Newsmodo is doing, describe what you’re doing and describe the industry landscape and how Newsmodo fits in.

Such an easy question.

Pretend you’ve got a crystal ball.

I was just going to say, I’ll bring that out now. I’ve just got it on my desk here, I’ll have a gaze into it.

I think the one thing that we can be sure is that things are going to continue to evolve. There’s never been a faster moving time in the industry. I was listening to Karl Stefanovic just this morning on the radio. For a guy that is so well-considered, his career certainly you would say has been a successful one, even he’s saying, “Look, in the next two years I’m going to be diversifying.”

We’re all going to be looking for what’s next. I think that ‘what’s next’ is really going to be critical to where we all try to place ourselves in the shifting sands of the industry. We believe that will be across digital, branded content is something that all, if not all most, big business are really looking at closely now. Advertising is changing at a rate of knots and I think right now we’re at this really interesting tipping point where brands are really understanding that people are sick of having ads shoved down their throat, they want something that is more engaging, more entertaining and more transparent. That provides a real opportunity for great journalists and great writers to step in there and say, “Well, I can create that content.”

That’s where we see Newsmodo heading, in that direction, whilst keeping our roots, you mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, “Why news?” Well, we’re very much grounded in our roots of news. We have almost two streams that we see for now, who knows in three years’ time, but for now that’s the two directions that we’re very much pursuing. Real editorial news, ‘real’, and then the branded news as well.

Wonderful. Change is inevitable and the ability to adapt is vital. I guess being open to opportunities is really the way to succeed in the next couple of years.

Fingers crossed — hey, here we are on a podcast. I didn’t think I’d be getting that opportunity a couple of years when I was sitting at a newsroom in a television network.

Things change very dramatically very fast, it’s all about embracing that change. Pretending that you know everything is not going to do yourself or those around you any favors, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’ve just got to keep learning and absorbing and hopefully by being open to that change we’ll all be best positioned to enjoy what is around the corner.

Great. If people want to find out more about Newsmodo where do they go?
We’re at Newsmodo.com

There’s a couple of emails there, they can email us directly, speak to the editorial team, we’re always available. We’d love to hear from you.

Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today, Rakhal.

Thanks again.

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